I remember the first time I used Google Earth’s Street View feature. It wasn’t because I was planning a trip or curious to see how my neighborhood looked or if I could see my car, none of that interested me. Strange as it may sound, I was looking for street views of the worst neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. I would be too afraid to wander around these neighborhoods with my camera, randomly snapping photos. But there I was, cruising down Kensington Avenue, taking in every inch of the gritty dilapidated area, soaking it all in from the comfort of my living room. Occasionally I could see people out walking the streets. Although their faces were blurred, those images excited me in a way I can’t quite describe.
I remember the first time I seriously considered writing a documentary film. It wasn’t to feature an inspiring teacher, or retrace my family’s lineage or that of a local band, none of that interested me. Oddly, it was supposed to center around a not quite historic, rundown old building housing degenerates, known as the Bush House Hotel in Quakertown, PA. I only got so far as interviewing one resident and a few neighbors, but the fact remains I am clearly obsessed with the photographic documentation of fringe society. The dirty, poor, addicted, abused, people who are so often ignored, that is the subject matter I want to explore through my lens.
As an amateur photographer, I fantasize about delving into underworlds and capturing the essence of realities far removed from my own. While Philadelphia has its share of gritty subject material, New York City during the 1980’s (before it was revitalized and Disneyfied) offers some of the best fringe photography I have ever seen. Unfortunately I missed out on that New York, being too young to experience it. Luckily, there were some others there to preserve those moments forever in great style.
Miron Zownir, a German photographer, spent around nine years photographing New York starting in 1980 at 23 years of age. The outsiders of society became his preferred area of interest. In 1995 he came back to Berlin. When traveling to Russia and Eastern Europe he created more analogue photographs of junkies, homeless and generally marginalized groups. His most famous collection of New York’s fringe society is called NYC RIP which was published in 2015.
Zownir’s peculiar approach to cover the city’s multiple-layered day-to-day lunacy was quickly recognised by the local scene as the TEUTONIC PHENOMENOGRAPHER (Village Voice). Shot in moody, expressionistic b/w, Zownir’s pictures from that period give a penetrating insight to inner-city sub-cultural spheres, which, in their original local context, have since perished in the boom of the 90s. His lens captured the untamed lust at the gay-parties, just shortly before Aids massively claimed its victims; the futile protest of artists and offbeat performers; the hopelessness on the Bowery; the shadowy world of hookers or junkies. Zownir’s photographs of the “Sex Piers” have become legendary documents by now. -Josef Chladek
Here are some excellent interviews with Zownir, where he discusses his choice of subject material in a way that resonates with me:
American photographer Ken Schles, at 23 years old, began writing his book Invisible City in 1983. He was living in a rundown apartment in New York City’s East Village. The building was boarded up by the landlord to prevent break-ins, as the area was a “shooting gallery” for heroin addicts. Incidentally, the boarded up windows gave Schles a perfect darkroom. He documented his surroundings throughout the 1980’s. His work is slightly more intellectual and polished. It is also less graphic than the more raw Zownir.
His most prominent monograph Invisible City/Night Walk, paints a deeply moving portrait of 1980’s New York’s underworld. It was published originally as Invisible City in 1988, then reprinted in 2014 with the companion release Night Walk.
Former taxi driver Matt Weber started documenting New York City in the 1980s and spent three decades collecting a series of images he called The Urban Prisoner. His black-and-white candids are tinged with emotions that range from loneliness to violence. Weber’s pulled back and documentarian approach gives his work a raw, gritty feel.
Martha Cooper is an American photojournalist born in the 1940’s in Baltimore, Maryland. She worked as a staff photographer for the New York Post during the 1970’s. She is best known for documenting the New York City graffiti scene of the 70’s-80’s. She was the first and foremost photographer of the emerging Hip Hop scene from the impoverished and deprecated South Bronx in the early eighties. This is evident in her release Hip Hop Files: 1979-1984
In 1984, Cooper and Henry Chalfant published their photographs of New York City graffiti in the book Subway Art, which has been called the graffiti bible and by 2009 had sold half a million copies. If you are interested in seeing a great documentary about New York City’s graffiti scene in the early eighties, check out Style Wars.
John Conn is a photographer for whom there is no Wiki, but he has a great monograph of the NYC Subway Late 70s to Mid 80s portraying the Wild West atmosphere of danger in New York’s subway system. Notice how the black and white imagery makes every stain on the walls more pronounced? It pulls the viewer in so you almost feel like you need a shower after viewing.
Sheldon Nadelman captured images of New Yorkers while working at Terminal Bar on 41st Street and 8th Ave. Taken from 1973-1982, his photos show prostitutes, pimps and homeless people around the Port Authority bus terminal. Sex workers would come in to drink cognac at eight in the morning before going out to walk the streets. The Terminal Bar closed when the owner didn’t want to pay $125,000 a year rent on property that now leases for millions. What used to be a bar in a neighborhood described as the ‘dirtiest, wildest and toughest’ has now become an upscale grocery store.
One constant remains among all of these artists’ work: the absence of persistent marketing to the point of mucking up the images. Today it would be quite difficult to capture such stripped down, raw human experience without inadvertently including a cell phone or ipad in the shot. I actually read a photographer who said he hates shooting New Yorkers now because there is nothing so mind numbing as seeing a bunch of people with their heads down looking at their phones constantly. Although there are signs of corporate marketing in the backgrounds, part of the appeal of NYC in those days was the predominance of independent businesses as opposed to the “Dunkin Donuts on every corner” abomination we see today.
Despite its problems, the old New York was rich in the culture of struggle. As such, it was a fringe photographer’s paradise. That mecca is gone forever now. Occasionally there are efforts made to fight back against mainstream consumer culture that whitewashes the reality on the ground in NYC neighborhoods. Here is an example: